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Capt. Stephen B. Hanks

In 1914, when an old man


A Cousin of Abraham Lincoln and a Pilot and Captain

On the Upper Mississippi River for Seventy-two Years.


From the Diary Kept by Capt. Hanks, and Placed with

The post, to be Published After His death……..


 Edited by Capt. Fred A. Bill No 1623 Van Buren-St., St.

Paul, Minn. To Whom all communications concerning

This History Should be Addressed, and who will be Glad

To Give Publicity in These Columns to All Corrections,

Additions and Comments, Sent in by Old Rivermen and

Others Interested.


 Published in the Burlington Saturday Evening Post

March 26, 1921-1922 


  How it came about

  St. Paul., Min.  March 20, 1921- Editor Post:  the manuscript of the life of Captain Stephen Beck Hanks, received from you some time ago was written during the years 1904-8, from the Captain’s dictation, by Mr. C. B. Paddock, of Albany Ill., a brother-in-law of the Captain.  The Captain himself, while full of energy and always ready to “do something” had a nervous affliction that made it hard for him to write and the work of Mr. Paddock, since deceased, was cheerfully given to assist an old neighbor and companion in leaving a record which he hoped would be of interest to his friends and associates and be of historic value as well.

  In preparing the manuscript for your columns we have adhered just as closely as possible to the original and no claim is made by the author, nor the writer, that the story has any literary merit whatever.  It is just the telling of the happenings in a busy life as they would be told to a few friends by the fireside.

  Whenever it is thought best to inject some facts not found in the manuscript into these articles, for the purpose of making some incident a little more clear or to give some additional information that we trust will be of interest, such matter will be in the form of “notes” so arranged as to preclude the possibility of their being taken a as part of the original manuscript.

  We trust that our readers may derive as much pleasure in the reading of these articles as the writer has in preparing them.  Yours Truly,

Fred A. Bill


   My father’s people so far as I can learn and from childish recollections of conversations among the adults of the family; were of English extraction and of Quaker antecedents.  They came to America with the Puritan Pioneers and originally settled in New England.  Later they drifted down through Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia into North Carolina from which State my father came to Kentucky in his early life with his parents and immediate family.

  My grandfather and grandmother Hanks I know but little about, as they died before my time.  My grandfather’s family consisted of five boys and one girl.  The boys were named Joshua, John, Nathan, one whose name I cannot give, and my father Thomas who was born Jan 24, 1777.  The girl was named Nancy and she became the wife of Thomas Lincoln and later the mother of our martyred President, Abraham Lincoln.  I am unable to give these names in genealogical order and do not know the birth rank in the family of my father.  I never saw any of this family except my father and uncles, Joshua and John.  These three brothers lived close together and I think occupied portions of the estate left by my grandfather.  I can remember playing with the children of my uncles but cannot say what became of them except that they drifted across the Ohio river in time and were lost to us.  I have occasionally read or heard of people of our name in southern Ohio, Indiana and Illinois and have no doubt but that they are descendants of these uncles.

  My mother’s name was Kathryn Beck.  Her father was Stephen Beck and he was a soldier in the war of the revolution.  Of his ancestry I know little except that he was of German origin and that the family were early pioneers in America.  I never knew my grandfather Beck.  My grandmother Beck, whose maiden name was Wright, was born in Philadelphia, Pa.  I knew her well in my earlier years.  One of my earliest recollections is in hearing her tell most interesting tales in the Indian wars and of the sieges they frequently underwent.  Many a time did she mould the bullets that were fired at the foe from rifles pointed out through the port holes in the blockhouses and stockades within which the settlers gathered for safety.  These stories were very thrilling and left and unfading impression upon my young and receptive mind.

  There were seven girls and three boys born to my grandfather and grandmother Beck.   The boys were named William Wright Beck, John Beck and Alfred Beck.  The girls were were Polly who married Samuel Slocomb: Betsey, who married a man named Dickerson; Becky who married a man named Culbertson; two others whose names I cannot recall who married men named Hall and Dodge respectively, and my mother Kathryn.  I cannot give the order of the birth of these children but my mother came along about the middle of the list.  Most of these girls located in Southern Illinois and nearly all had large families.  William Wright Beck went south and later became the owner of a large plantation in Alabama on the Tombigbee river.  The last we heard of him was about the commencement of the Civil War when report came to us that he had donated one hundred thousand dollars to the cause of Succession and would make farther subscription if necessary.  I mention this matter of devotion to the Southern cause as an illustration of how families became scattered in this country and the different views they acquire on a subject due to their environments.  John Beck located some five miles east of Springfield Illinois on the Sangamon river about 1827 or 1828 of.  My grandmother Beck made her home with him during her later years and here she died in 1859 of cholera at the age of ninety-three years.  About the same time John Beck lost two children of the same disease.

  My Father’s family consisted of the following;  Harriet Eveline, born June 21, 1813, William Wright, born Feb. 20, 1815; Elizabeth, born Aug. 1 1817; Thomas Wright, born Oct 10, 1819; Stephen Beck, (myself), born Oct 9, 1821; Mary Ann, born Oct, 30, 1823; David C. born Feb. 10, 1820, and Samuel Slocumb, born, March 30, 1828.  In all six boys and three girls.

  Perhaps there may be no better place to say something of these brothers and sisters and their families, although doubtless they will be referred to later on.

  My oldest sister Harriet died June 10, 1834.  How many children she had I do not know.  There was one boy who was named Thaddeus Napoleon Bonaparte Walker. Doubtless there were other children but I did not know them.  My sister died in her early years and the family drifted out of my knowledge.

  William Wright Hanks come to Northern Illinois sometime later than myself, stopping first in Knox County.  He was married and had three children when he came north.  Later he went to Rockingham, just below Davenport, Iowa, where he was employed as a hotel clerk.  For some reason unknown to me he left his family and disappeared for some ten years and returned as suddenly as he left.  But that is another story and he has not been heard from by my or his family for many years and whether alive or dead I do not know.

  Elizabeth, commonly called Betsy went to Knox County, Ill. with the family of Samuel Slocumb about a year after I went north.  Here she married James Withrow and they went on a farm in Henry County, Ill.  When the gold fever broke out in California he left his family and went out there, returning about 1890 and spent his few remaining years with his children.  Meantime his wife Betsy, had died and the children were scattered, some being with relatives and others making their own way in the world.

  Thomas Wright Hanks left Kentucky with a cousin named Dick Hanks for some point in the South, I think Mississippi.  He learned the saddler’s trade, a very profitable one at that time.  We had only one letter from him and we do not know whether he is alive or dead.

  Mary Ann and myself went to northern Illinois, with the family of Alfred Slocomb.  She made her home with us until she married Aaron Colvert about 1840.  Later they moved to Iowa.  Her husband went into the Union army and died in the South and she became a pensioner of Uncle Sam, and at the writing is living with a son in the state of Washington.

  David C. Hanks came to Albany, Ill., about 1843.  He soon followed me in river work and has spent most of his life as a pilot and master, engaged chiefly in the rafting business.  He married Helen Bennett in 1852 and has spent the last eighteen years with his family in Albany.

  Samuel S. Hanks came to Illinois in 1844 and to Albany a little later.  He has spent the larger portion of his life on the river and a part of it in farming.  With others he went to California during the gold excitement but did not remain long.  He was married to Hannah Stagg, previous to going to California.  He moved to near Davenport some thirty-five years ago and recently went to Princeton, Iowa, where he still lives with some of his children, his wife having died a number of years ago.


   I was born near Hopkinsville, Ky., on Oct. 9, 1821.  My birth place was the typical log home of that day.  The farm was, as I learned in later years, some thirteen hundred acres, some three hundred or four hundred being under cultivation.  My father had a number of slaves, how many I do not know.  Two of these, an elderly man and woman, were kept about the house for house work, and the others attended to the stock and in the many duties incidental to a large farm with varied crops and the diversified industries maintained about the homes in pioneer days.  We were almost independent in those days for food, clothing and shelter, and practically self sustaining.  There was a grist mill, not far away, built by my grandfather before I was born, where our bread stuffs were prepared

  This mill was located at a ledge of rock and the head of water was raised several feet by a dam above the ledge making altogether a very good fall and quite a sufficient for the purpose.  Quite frequently I fished at the race exit and a couple of incidents fixed the locality vividly in my memory.  A negro boy seeing me fishing one day coaxed me to loan the pole and line to him, which I did.  He soon landed a fine fish and immediately ran away with it, to my indignation as I figured the catch was mine.  Another time the older people were at church and on the return came upon a number of us boys swimming at this same place.  We attempted to hide but could not avoid discovery and were properly corrected and admonished for our lack of reverence for the Sabbath.

  Besides raising our bread stuff, we had abundance of meat from the different domestic animals and if we tired of the tame variety, we took to the woods where there was much wild meat, venison and turkeys being the chief. In the season there were wild pigeons by the million.  In what was known as their “roosts” the limbs of the trees would be topped with the birds until they would break and in places it would be difficult to go through the timber on account of these broken limbs.  The pigeons were killed and carried away by the people literally by the wagon loads.*

  Our hogs ran wild much of the year and when it came time to feed them for fattening my father had a tin horn with which he called them to be fed.  When they heard this horn they came running from all directions to get the corn.  We had a flock of sheep which in addition to making meat for us furnished wool for clothing.  We also had an abundance of geese, chickens and guinea fowls, but not many turkeys, as the wild ones were plentiful.

  Of sweets, we had abundance of honey, both from wild bees and from swarms kept in the primitive “beegums”  of that day.  Then there was the so called “sugar bush” on the place where in the early spring we gathered sap from the maple trees and made our usual supply of sugar and syrup.  The “bush” was quite a distance from the house and a rough home made sled was used as a conveyance between the house and the place of operations, which was known as the “sugar camp” the trees were tapped with a small auger and an elder or cane spout inserted in the hole through which the sap ran through troughs hollowed out of logs.  The sap was gathered two or three times a day into barrels hauled on a primitive sled usually made from a forked tree, the prongs being curved up like a sled runner.  The sap when gathered was emptied in to a tank which was simply an immense log of some soft wood hollowed out like a canoe and holding some fifty barrels or more.  From this the sap was dipped into large iron kettles, set on arches of stone with furnace cavitics beneath for the fires.  The last run of sap, at the close of the season, would not make good hard sugar but made an excellent syrup.  The close of the season was always celebrated with a sugar party. To which all the young people of the neighborhood were invited.  The syrup was made into wax and candy and the fun was fast and furious until the early hours of the next day.

  Our clothing was made from material produced on the place.  Wool from the sheep was carded, spun and woven by the women of the household.  Among my earliest recollections is sitting by the fireplace and keeping up a fire of pine knots to furnish light for mother and the girls to spin yarn during the long winter evenings.  I often became so sleepy that I would drop asleep and the light would die out.  Flax was another of the textiles we produced on the place, which was made into tow.  Cotton was another product to some extent, and from these different fibers the clothing and various cloth requirements of the family were manufactured.  Tow shirts were the regulation garments for young children.  Linsey-woolsey for the women and girls and jeans for the men and boys.  These different fabrics were the products of the simple spinning wheels, reels and looms found in the homes of all the industrious people of the country if it was desired to have clothing that would appeal more to the eye, in of her words a dress up or more appropriate  “Sunday suit’ thread of different colors in combinations as desired would be woven into the cloth.  The making of the cloth was one of the many duties of the women in addition to the regular household work and the latter was not lightened by the labor saving devices of the present day.

  Our place was located somewhere in the northeastern portion of Christian country in the western part of then Kentucky, near the head waters of a small stream called Pond river.  The mill previously mentioned, was on this river where it fell from higher ground over the ledge of rock referred to, to lower ground and at that point it became practically dead water and the Ohio river, in times of flood, backed up Pond river to this point and frequently much of the lower ground was covered with water.  This justified the name of the stream. 

  The house and surrounding buildings were near the crest of the bluff, or ledge and on the high land of the place, the house itself standing on the highest elevation.  The house in which I was born was a large log house, as were the homes of all the early settlers there, but of that house I have only a faint recollection.  The house I well remember was made of brick and was built after I was old enough to have some recollection of its construction.  One incident fresh in my mind, and probably about the first thing I can remember, is falling into one of the trenches being dug for the foundation.  I was not able to get out by myself and the old darky women of the house came to my rescue.  I had a slice of bread and butter in my hand which was lost in the scramble much to my distress.  I have no other recollection of its construction except that later on some of the older ones showed me a large hole a few rods away and told me the house came out of that hole.  This, to my child mind, was a great mystery, although a statement of fact, the clay for the brick coming from the hole.

  The barn must have been in an immense structure, for about all the coarser produce of the place was stored therein and the threshing of the grain was done on its floor, usually with flails although I remember once seeing the grain being tramped out with horses.  Another large building was the tobacco house a two story structure in which the tobacco was hung for curing.  After the corn was husked, every day that was damp enough our time was spent in the building striping or stemming the tobacco leaves and tying them in “bands” and packing in large casks, holding several hundred pounds, which were also made on the premise.  When the time came to take the product to market instead of loading the casks on wagons, wooden pins were inserted in the center of the heads of the cask, a pair of thills (?) were securely attached to the pins and the cask rolled away to market by ox or horse power.

  Another and quite important building, was the still house.  This was of moderate dimensions, probably some twenty-five feet square and of sufficient height to accommodate the necessary machinery.  We used it to take care of the surplus from the peach and apple orchards from which we make peach and apple randy.  In addition to taking care of our own product we did a good deal of custom work for our neighbors.  As I remember the process, the peaches were placed whole in a large boiler (apples were crushed before being boiled) which was covered with a circular cover with a horn like projection, or pipe, in the center, curving out, which led the vapor, or steam, from the boiling mass into the top end of a large coiled of lead pipe enclosed in an upright tank of cold water, the tank being six or eight feet in diameter and of corresponding height.  The condensed liquid running from the lower end of the coil was the brandy beautifully clear and transparent and in high repute among the people of that time and place.  This was previous to any temperance agitation and before the advent of the saloon and the industry was recognized as legitimate at that time.  Another prominent feature with simple machinery or appliances was for making rope of various size and kinds, this was a straight smooth piece of ground probably three hundred feet in length on which the fiber was twisted and when desired several strands were twisted together, as was necessary for bed cords, halters, lines for driving etc. flax was the material principally used for this work.   It underwent a sweating, or rotting process to break up the woody matter; then it was broken and hatchelled and the coarser fiber separated from the finer, the former being used in making the ripe and the finer spun for clothing and domestic use.  The very finest was made into sewing thread.


Collected and Transcribed by

Georgeann McClure


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